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Stokes v. John Deere Seeding Group

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

September 29, 2014

BETH A. STOKES, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN DEERE SEEDING GROUP, a subsidiary of DEERE & COMPANY a/k/a JOHN DEERE COMPANY; and JIM GUNNISON, Defendants.

ORDER

SARA DARROW, District Judge.

Plaintiff Beth Stokes is suing her former employer, Defendant John Deere Seeding Group ("Deere"), and former coworker, Defendant Jim Gunnison, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 ILCS 5/2-102, and state tort law. Stokes claims Gunnison sexually harassed her and Deere discriminatorily failed to investigate and discipline this harassment. Gunnison has moved for summary judgment on Counts I and IV, and partial summary judgment on Count III. Deere requests summary judgment on Counts II and V through IX.[1] For the following reasons, Defendant Gunnison's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, ECF No. 61, is GRANTED, and Defendant Deere's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Counts II, V-IX, ECF No. 62, is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND[2]

Deere manufactures planters, a type of large farm machinery, at a facility in Moline, Illinois. Stokes worked for Deere from 1973 until her retirement on August 30, 2013. She was responsible for inspecting planters after they came off of the assembly line. Gunnison, another 30-plus-year Deere employee, worked in the Repair Department at the Moline facility from 2008 until his retirement on August 1, 2011. Gunnison repaired planters on the assembly line and before they were approved for inventory or shipment.

I. Harassment by Gunnison

A. Obscene Language and Behavior

While at the Moline facility from 2008 to 2011, Gunnison's desk was near that of an inspector, Larry Richardson, as well as Tyler Fullerton and Charlie Parkhurst, repair personnel like Gunnison. Gunnison testified that he, along with other coworkers, regularly used obscene language at work, including the terms "dickhead" and "suck ass, " which Deere supervisors must have been aware of given its ubiquity. Gunnison also said he once or twice declared that Deere-provided employee appreciation meals "taste[d] like dick, " and that he called Fullerton "queer" on occasion.

Stokes claims Gunnison used those terms and similar ones like "homo, pervert, fucking ass eater, dick licker, cock sucker" and "bitch" when talking with other male employees at Deere. Stokes June 10, 2013 Dep. 109:21-110:24, 113:18-20, ECF No. 62-8. Gunnison also sometimes engaged in suggestive horseplay and "humping" motions with the other men, according to Stokes. Id. 114:11-15. In November 2010, while passing by his desk in the course of her duties, Stokes claims she noticed on about four occasions that Gunnison's computer screen displayed a hotdog and meatballs arranged to look like male genitalia. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 169:11-173:13, ECF No. 62-3. The image had disappeared, however, by the time Stokes returned with her camera to take a picture. Id. Stokes never complained of this language or behavior to her supervisors. Stokes June 10, 2013 Dep. 114:4-5, 114:20-22.

While Stokes testified that Gunnison insulted her, he "never called [her] any sexually derogatory names." Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 77:20-23, ECF No. 70-4. On one occasion, however, she heard Gunnison call her a "bitch" in the earshot of Parkhurst and possibly another male coworker, she testified; Gunnison claims he never used the word to refer to a Deere employee. Id. 78:7-80:17; Gunnison Dep. 74:14-18, ECF No. 64-1. Stokes did not report this incident to her supervisors or include it in her EEOC Charge of Discrimination or her Complaint in this suit. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 78:2-6, 81:9-12, 84:19-85:23, ECF No. 70-4. During her March 15, 2013 deposition, Stokes explained that she did not necessarily consider "bitch" a "sexually derogatory name" because "it's become so common it's hard to distinguish it sometimes." Id. 78:2-6.

In support of her claims, Stokes also alleges several workplace interactions between her and Gunnison. These began in late 2008.

B. Slander Incident

Stokes testified that between September 1, 2008, and March 1, 2009, Gunnison gave false and negative reports about Stokes's work performance to their supervisors and repair personnel and assemblers in the facility. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 93:1-16, ECF No. 64-5. Gunnison said, she claimed, that Stokes did not do her job, did not know how to do it, was terrible at it, and should not have it. See id. 93:17-22. She personally heard these comments on at least one occasion. Id. 97:7-10. She testified that she heard Gunnison tell her supervisor over an internal radio channel that she "is not around to inspect this planter and they want to get this planter inspected, and she needs to get out here and inspect this planter, it's been sitting here forever." Id. 94:2-15. In fact, Stokes testified, her counterpart Richardson had been inspecting that planter and he was thus the likelier inspector to finish the job, which Gunnison knew. Id. 95:2-9. Stokes said she protested this incident to her supervisor at the time, Ken Kinnan, but does not think he confronted Gunnison. Id. 96:23-97:6.

C. Throwing Keys Incident

In or around February 2009, Stokes saw Gunnison drive a Gator, a compact-utility vehicle used on the factory floor at Deere, and stop near the women's locker room. She asked Gunnison for the keys to the Gator, and he threw them to her. Female Deere coworker Kerry Scott had been on the Gator with Gunnison, but Stokes claims she had entered the locker room by the time Gunnison threw the keys. Stokes Decl. ¶ 15, ECF No. 64-3. Stokes claims he threw the keys at her chest in an overhand motion, and they painfully struck her chest. Id. He claims he tossed the keys into her outstretched hand, and they did not strike her chest. Gunnison Dep. 110:8-10, ECF No. 70-6. It is undisputed that Kinnan investigated the incident following Stokes's complaint, including speaking with Gunnison and Scott, but found insufficient evidence that Gunnison had engaged in misconduct. According to Deere Workforce Planning Coordinator Jamie Minor's later investigation, both Gunnison and Scott indicated during Kinnan's investigation that Gunnison had thrown the keys underhanded and Stokes had caught them. Minor Dep. 100:20-23, ECF No. 69-2.

D. Spitting and Cursing Incident

On March 14, 2009, Stokes and Gunnison had an argument in front of other Deere employees. Stokes claims her coworker told her that Gunnison wanted to move planters outside, but Stokes disagreed because the weather was bad and she thought she would eventually need to inspect them. Stokes Decl. ¶¶ 16-17, ECF No. 64-3. When she questioned him, Gunnison allegedly started yelling and swearing and got in her face. Id. Gunnison claims it was Stokes who started the yelling, while she was still about 30 feet away, and continued as they drew face to face. Gunnison Dep. 91:5-95:16, ECF No. 69-1. Claiming that she was "fearful" that Gunnison "could" harm her, Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 110:14-111:5, ECF No. 63-4, Stokes pushed Gunnison away. Stokes claims Gunnison also "threatened her"-that she was going to "pay for" and/or "regret" this encounter. Id. 110:14-22. Gunnison maintains that, after she pushed him, he said, "That is the last time you'll ever put your hands on me, " but then went back to work. Gunnison Dep. 96:7-13, ECF No. 69-1.

Deere Labor Relations Manager Richard Nelson, after interviewing employees who witnessed the argument, determined that both Stokes and Gunnison had contributed to it, but Stokes violated Deere's Violence Prevention Policy and related work rules by escalating the argument with her use of physical force. Following a disciplinary hearing on March 19, 2009, Stokes was suspended for 30 days, but the suspension was later reduced. Gunnison was not disciplined. He testified that, prior to the hearing, he told his side of the story to a Deere supervisor, but said he did not want any disciplinary action taken against Stokes, that he "can handle getting pushed by somebody." Id. 97:10-18.

E. Picture Incident

When Stokes returned to work on April 6, 2009, following her suspension, she discovered, taped in her workspace, about 25 photocopied pictures of Gunnison sitting on a Gator next to Deere Manager Marsha Hartman. On April 14, 2009, Stokes complained of the pictures to Kinnan. The pictures were visible to other Deere employees, but only Stokes reported them. The day she complained of them, Kinnan removed the pictures and brought them to Labor Relations Administrator Denny Black. Black investigated the matter, but was unable to determine who had posted the pictures. As part of his investigation, Black called and questioned Gunnison, who had been on work assignment in Idaho since late March. Black may or may not have maintained notes from the investigation. Gunnison testified that he did not post the pictures, did not actually have a copy at work of the picture-he thought Parkhurst took the photo on Parkhurst's phone several months before the incident-and had not been home "in almost a month" when Black called him in Idaho. Gunnison Dep. 122:2-123:22, ECF No. 69-1.

F. Blocking Incidents

According to Stokes, Gunnison blocked exit doors with equipment on several occasions. Stokes Decl. ¶ 21, ECF No. 64-3. On November 24, 2009, Stokes saw Gunnison place some equipment near a factory doorway. She did not know if he did so purposely to block the doorway. Stokes Aug. 2, 2013 Dep. 194:8-11, ECF No. 62-9. Six days later, Stokes sent an email to her supervisor, Jeff Ryder (who replaced Kinnan), in which she said Gunnison had blocked the doorway on November 24, 2009, and attached a picture she had taken of the equipment near the doorway. Ryder received the email but did not understand it to be a sexual harassment complaint. Ryder Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 62-11. Ryder does not recall speaking to Gunnison about the incident, but does believe he emailed Gunnison's supervisor, Shay O'Neal, although he does not recall O'Neal's response. Ryder Dep. 52:5-18, ECF No. 64-6.

Ryder's notes from around that time state: "Beth brought to my attention repair guys are blocking her door to the south lab which is a safety issue and makes her go outside and around to get through." Id. 51:5-9 & Ex. 2. At his deposition, however, Ryder testified that he did not himself view such activity as posing a safety issue, and did not know why he wrote that. Id. 51:10-12. Ryder also wrote that he thought "games [we]re being played" by the repairmen. Id. Ex. 2. Stokes testified that on other occasions, Gunnison and Parkhurst would block the exit door with a planter while moving it out of the way to bring in additional planters. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 157:19-158:7, ECF No. 70-4. Stokes did not indicate whether she ever reported these blocking incidents.

G. Planter Incident

On December 14, 2010, Gunnison began moving a planter with a tractor while Stokes was inspecting the planter and positioned within its arms. Stokes claims Gunnison gave no warning, even though she could see him looking at her. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 185:4-19, ECF No. 62-3. Despite the potential danger, she moved out of the way without injury. Gunnison claims he gave Stokes and a coworker standing next to her, Roger Carlson, warning before moving the planter, by yelling and honking its horn. Gunnison Dep. 133:10-20, ECF No. 62-2. Gunnison said he could see that, where she was standing, Stokes was not in danger of being hit by the planter as he lowered it. Gunnison Dep. 136:13-137:12, ECF No. 69-1. Deere standard safety protocol calls for an employee moving a tractor to alert others by honking the horn. O'Neal Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 62-12. Stokes complained of the incident to Ryder, who informed O'Neal. According to O'Neal, he spoke with Gunnison shortly after Ryder notified him. O'Neal said he could not substantiate Stokes's allegation that Gunnison failed to signal before moving the planter due to lack of other witnesses to corroborate her account. Id. ¶ 3.

H. Right Heel Incident

According to Stokes, on January 6, 2011, Gunnison struck her right heel with the wheel of a work tricycle as he rode past her inside the facility, and did not apologize. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 192:7-193:12, ECF No. 62-3. She claims he did not ring the bell or say "excuse me." Stokes Decl. ¶ 24, ECF No. 64-3. Stokes complained to Ryder, who asked O'Neal to investigate. O'Neal questioned Gunnison, who said he repeatedly rang the tricycle's bell as he approached Stokes from her left side, slowed to a stop within a few feet of her, and said "excuse me" before passing. O'Neal Decl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 62-12; Gunnison Dep. 52:21-53:11, ECF No. 62-2. Gunnison said he felt contact as he rode past, and looked back and saw bolts lying on the floor. Gunnison Dep. 155:5-20, ECF No. 62-2. He told O'Neal he did not know whether he hit Stokes's heel or "ran over a bolt"; in either event, "it was purely accidental." Id. 192:3-8, ECF No. 62-2; O'Neal Decl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 62-12. Again, due to the absence of witnesses, O'Neal said he could not substantiate Stokes's claim, and therefore told Ryder that it appeared to have been an accident. O'Neal Decl. ¶ 5.

I. Name Calling Incident

On February 15, 2011, while backing a planter into the factory, Stokes collided with a table, damaging a nearby wall. Gunnison had placed a crock pot on that table[3] prior to Stokes moving the planter. Gunnison testified that he placed the crock pot on the already-laden table in preparation for an anniversary lunch he was planning to share with Richardson, Fullerton, and Parkhurst. Gunnison Dep. 145:21-147:18, ECF No. 70-6. Gunnison said the table had been there "for a couple of days, " and he placed the crock pot on it about four hours before Stokes's collision, when a different planter was parked about three feet away. Id. 147:3-5. While Stokes claims Gunnison placed the table and/or crock pot in her path, she acknowledges having no proof that he intentionally did so. Second Am. Compl. ¶ 29, ECF No. 47; Stokes Aug. 2, 2013 Dep. 215:6-8, ECF No. 62-9. Gunnison claims he and his coworkers, when they saw that Stokes appeared to be on a collision course with the table, were "yelling for her to stop." See Gunnison Dep. 146:18-22. Additionally, Stokes claims that a few days to a week thereafter, a coworker, John Slack, told her Gunnison had told other coworkers she was "stupid" for backing into the table. Id. 215:9-14. Stokes did not report this alleged slander to a Deere supervisor. Id. 245:9-11.

J. Desk Incident

Also on February 15, 2011, Stokes witnessed Gunnison search through the drawers and items at her desk. Stokes testified that Gunnison was moving her personal items around and "acting like he was looking for something." Stokes Aug. 2, 2013 Dep. 212:19-22, ECF No. 62-9. She said that Gunnison left "with his hand closed, " leaving her unable to determine whether he took anything. Id. 212:23-25. Stokes was sitting within a foot of Gunnison, within clear view, while he was searching her desk. Stokes reported this incident to Ryder, who confronted Gunnison in the main work area. Gunnison claimed he had been looking for a phone book. Ryder told Gunnison to stay away from Stokes's desk. According to Gunnison, Richardson had told him the phonebook was located in the lab office, which was used by Stokes, Richardson, and Karl Kelly. Gunnison Dep. 142:2-21, ECF No. 69-1. He said he did not realize that he was searching Stokes's desk because Stokes was working at another desk; he thought he was at a spare desk the employees used to store "parts and keys and stuff." Id. 143:10-18. He did not recall noticing Stokes's personal items in the desk. Id. 143:24-144:4. Despite being present and observing, Stokes said she did not ask Gunnison why he was searching her desk or otherwise speak to him "[b]ecause he's intimidating." Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 213:20-25, ECF No. 61-5. After that incident, Stokes testified, Gunnison did not look through her desk again. Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 215:10-12, ECF No. 70-4.

K. Gator Use

Employees in Stokes's and Gunnison's department shared access to two Gators. Stokes claims that, from 2008 to June 2011, she made over 15 complaints orally or via email to Kinnan, Ryder, and her union stewards that Gunnison was improperly using the Gators. Stokes Decl. ¶ 29, ECF No. 64-3.

Ryder's notes indicate that on October 5, 2009, Stokes told him that Gunnison, Fullerton, and Parkhurst were taking the inspectors' Gator without asking. Ryder noted that, after asking them to ask Stokes first in the future, Gunnison "got in [his] face real bad and started yelling obscenities and saying it was not her Gator. Once I got him calmed down, he still did not acknowledge that he would ask her first. I kind of suspect these guys are playing games." Ryder Dep. Ex. 2, ECF No. 64-6. Following another complaint by Stokes that Gunnison used a Gator to cause a confrontation, a November 22, 2010 Ryder email to O'Neal stated that "it looks like [Gunnison] is just taking the Gator now to be difficult, actually I think for the most part that is why he always takes it[, ] just to be difficult and cause problems. (I would say he is playing games[, ] which seems very childish)." Id. Ryder's notes on November 15, 2010, and November 16, 2010, also mention complaints regarding Gunnison's Gator use. Id.

According to Ryder's notes, on January 10, 2011, he emailed O'Neal indicating that Stokes had reported another incident of Gunnison taking the Gator without asking. Id. Ryder noted that "[e]veryone else asks her first, " that Gunnison "continue[s] to get away with these things" and is "never receptive to trying to work anything out with" Stokes even though she was "truly trying, " and that Stokes "has come to me visually upset on many occasions this build season"-meaning that "you could see she was close to crying"-due to these Gator disputes. Ryder Dep. 59:13-25 & Ex. 2, ECF No. 64-6. Ryder testified at his deposition that he "felt like we should be able to come to an agreement to make sure that [Gunnison] was asking to use the Gator, " but no such resolution was forthcoming. Id. 59:4-12.

It is undisputed that the Gators were not assigned to any individual Deere employee. However, according to Ryder, Deere employees are advised to ask the person currently using the Gator before taking it, to ensure its current user is not involved in a project requiring the Gator's continued use. See id. 47:9-49:7. Stokes acknowledged that asking her before using the Gator was not required, but it was "a nice courtesy." Stokes Mar. 15, 2013 Dep. 238:6-10, ECF No. 62-3. The other inspector, Richardson, shared use of the Gator with her, and Gunnison did not ask his permission on these occasions either, Stokes said. Id. 238:11-19. In response to Stokes's concerns and Ryder's suspicion regarding Gunnison's motives, however, Ryder claims he referred Stokes's complaints to O'Neal "on several occasions." O'Neal questioned Gunnison and reported back that Gunnison said he took the Gator for work-related reasons, not "malicious purposes." E.g., Ryder Decl. ¶ 9, ECF No. 62-11.

On February 21, 2011, Stokes discovered that a Gator was left outside in the rain, and suspecting Gunnison, asked Ryder to investigate. Ryder examined pictures Stokes had taken of the Gator as she discovered it, reviewed security camera footage, and spoke to several employees who had worked during that shift. Nevertheless, he was unable to determine who was responsible for parking the Gator outside. On or about June 2, 2011, Stokes complained to Ryder that Gunnison had moved the Gator, causing Stokes to be unable to find it when she needed it for a work purpose. Ryder conveyed Stokes's complaint to Labor Relations Administrator Richard ...


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